1935 KOHLER AUTOMATIC
Generator History Kohler
In the early part of the 20th century electricity was just beginning to
take root in the United States. Prior to electricity homes were lit
with gas, oil, or candle. Labor saving devices in the home and farm
were usually powered by crank or in the cases of larger equipment, by gas
or steam engine. Urban areas were quick to install power plants and
run power lines. Rural areas were much different however and there was
not the market for a power company to install plants and lines for a few
small farms and towns.
Though there were recommendations for rural electrification as far back
as 1909 by such committees as the Country Life Commission, little was done.
By 1920 one third of American homes had electricity and this rose to two
thirds by 1929. Of these homes 85% were urban though.
If you lived in a small rural community it was up to you to provide your
own power. Today we have generators for backup in case of power failure,
back in the early 20th century your generator was all the power you had.
As electric appliances were advertised and became more available (toasters,
vacuum cleaners, and of course, bright, clean electric light) more people
of course had a desire for electric power.
To cater to the rural un-electrified many companies began producing light
plants and home generators. In 1916 DELCO introduced their home electric
plants. In 1920 Kohler introduced the Kohler Automatic light plant.
150 other companies joined in by the mid 1920’s including Fairbanks Morse,
Westinghouse and General Gas and Electric.
These home plants ran the gamut from 32 volt to 110 volt DC and there
were 110 volt AC options as well. These were the three “standards”
though we are all used to 110 volt AC current today. Alternating
Current eventually became the standard for homes in part due to its ability
to travel long distances without needing a boost.
The Kohler Automatic seems very modern to many people today. These
robust and quiet machines could sleep in an outbuilding on a farm and then
awaken with the flick of a light switch. The Kohler required 24 volts
to start automatically, and then generated the 110 volts required for an individual's
home and appliances.
The Kohler Automatic that I own remains un-restored, and was used for years
on an annual basis to run toy trains at a gas engine show in upstate New
York. I mounted this Kohler on a custom cart made by Allan Hanford of Massachusetts,
unfortunately I hear he no longer makes carts. The Kohler now
provides power twice a year at the Great War Association WWI site in Newville, PA. The reenactors
there have nicknamed my Kohler "Tessie" after Tesla. We still start
it in the evening by merely pulling a light switch then waiting less then
a minute for the Kohler to settle in at the required RPM and soon we are
illuminated by the steady glow of 110 volt DC power. What amazes me
is that after 80 years this machine will still run for 14 to 20 hours in
a weekend without a problem. It can also sit for six months and with
a mere priming of the pump start up quickly. There is a reason
why such great explorers as Admiral Byrd relied on these trusty generators.
"Let There Be Light" by Richard Backus, Gas Engine Magazine January, 2004
A Cultural History of the United States, The 1920's By Erica
Hanson (no relation)
Kohler Power Website
This site has very useful photographs, history, serial number information
and manual scans.
This links directly to the Smokstak Kohler Generator forum.